We made one last stop when Silmar City was in view on the horizon. All I could really see of it was that it was less reflective than I thought of cities as being; whatever materials the taller, skyline defining buildings were made of, it was something gray instead of glass. All that could be held off for later though, because I had been preparing to speak with Amaryllis for the last long stretch of road.
The plan we'd come up with didn’t really deserve to be called that.
Anglecynn had established a research base within Silmar City to study the effects of the necrotic field effect. Part of their remittance was a teleportation key, which was apparently an incredibly valuable and literally irreplaceable bit of magic which allowed organic beings the ability to teleport, a process which was apparently lethal if you didn’t possess one of these magic items. (Amaryllis hadn’t called them magic items, but I called it like I saw it.) Amaryllis was on part of the council that had established this base, and when it had stopped responding, there had been something of a panic, mostly because an operation to recover the teleportation key was going to be necessary and there was no money in the black budget to fund said operation, and pulling in more funds would have required other council authorizations that would have brought significant unwanted attention on the faction within Anglecynn that --
“Blah, blah, blah, politics,” as Reimer would have said.
I didn’t want to treat everything she was saying as essentially flavor text, but Amaryllis didn’t seem to be in the mood for giving me a civics lesson, and I wasn’t especially enthusiastic about trying to untangle all of the assumptions implicit in the background she was giving me. And there were other parts that mattered to me much more, such as:
“Assuming that you’d found the money in the budget to retrieve the key, what would that have looked like?” I asked.
Amaryllis frowned and knit her eyebrows. “There would be a series of advisors to develop the plan,” she said. “However, in lieu of that, and with the caveat that I might be missing something major … it would likely have been a team of five or ten, because that’s the increment the teleportation key applies to, three casters of different flavors among them in order to provide redundancy in getting back, plus one brute, possibly a caster himself, linked through the soul in order to take the hits himself, plus at least a single blade-bound warrior to scythe through lesser threats. They would have cleared forward to the facility, attempting to identify the threat and prepared to teleport back out if things exceeded their abilities, then depending on what they found there, they would have gone in and done their best to find the key based on the facility floorplans that they would have acquired ahead of time.”
“Ah,” I said slowly. “Are you sure we want to do this?” That was a question that I asked a lot as a DM, mostly as a signal to the party that they were going to do something incredibly dumb.
“Yes,” she replied. “I’ve evaluated the options and this is the one least likely to end up with me in a shallow grave.”
“Alright,” I replied. “Then before we go, I want you to teach me magic.”
“That’s impossible,” said Amaryllis with a shake of her head. “Even the simple magic, like what I’m able to do, takes years of study. I know three spells, none of which you would be able to do without at least three months of intensive study.”
“And if my power applies to magic too?” I asked.
Amaryllis paused. “We can spend a half hour,” she said. “Time is only of the essence because of the possibility of the Coterie behind us, and I think we can spare a little bit for testing. Tell me what you know about blood magic.”
“Uh,” I paused. “Nothing. I mean, I have some guesses, but nothing immediately springs to mind.”
“Guess for me please,” she said.
“Well … my guess is that it would be something like what I’ve seen before, back on Earth,” I said. “So maybe blood magic is the ability to control blood telekinetically, or maybe it’s using your blood to store spells from other sources, or maybe it’s tapped into the elemental plane of blood, or maybe you have to drink blood to take on the blood’s power, or maybe you have to spill your own blood as a sacrifice in order to fuel different effects.”
Amaryllis was giving me a funny look.
“Was one of those correct?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “The depth of the dream-skewer astounds me sometimes.” I frowned at that and she hurried on. “No, blood magic taps into the raw, vital essence of the body, tapping it and shaping it for other purpose. The most skilled blood magi can extend their power beyond the body itself, extending their essence into the shape of a tool or weapon.”
“And these weapons are … blood whips or something?” I asked. That seemed a lot like telekinesis to me.
“Whips would be nearly impossible,” she said. “The energy of the body only obeys the laws of physics reluctantly. No, spears are the most common. That sort of magic is beyond my level though, and I’m only telling you about it for the sake of illustration. For now, close your eyes and feel your blood pumping within you. Listen to the beat of your heart and feel your pulse, not with your fingertips but just as it flows through your neck, your arms, your thighs. Open your eyes.”
When I opened my eyes, she was standing closer to me, and if I hadn’t been able to feel my pulse before, I probably would have felt the rush of blood then.
“This next part normally causes some frustration,” she said. “Once you feel your blood, truly feel it, not just as some part of you that operates automatically without your involvement, you have to think about it in parts. Think about the warmth of your blood, think about how your fingers would feel if you tied them up with string and cut your circulation, then think about the warmth of your blood spreading back into them.” I did as she said. “That’s an exercise we practiced, but we don’t have the time for it now, not to do properly, and don’t want to risk your fingers.” I nodded, still trying to feel what she was talking about. This was sounding more and more like some kind of ki system.
“Now,” said Amaryllis. “Call on the warmth of your blood and push it to your fingertips.” She concentrated on her index and middle fingers, which ignited with flame. She let me watch for a few seconds, then it disappeared, with no apparent ill effects. “Now you try.”
I did as she had instructed me, feeling my blood, feeling its movement, feeling its warmth, then pushing that warmth to my fingertip - which lit up with flame.
Unlocked skill: Blood Magic!
Achievement Unlocked: Thicker than Water
Spell discovered: Aarde’s Touch!
Amaryllis stared at my lit finger. I stared at my lit finger. A small, blood-red bar popped up in my lower right field of vision. When I released the mental sense of pressure I was placing on my fingertip, the flame went out. Neat.
“Who is Aarde?” I asked.
“A god,” Amaryllis replied. “That spell took me months to learn. Months. I had the best teachers in the world and literally centuries of institutional knowledge on how best to coax someone into understanding. You … had me, giving you a haphazard lesson from incomplete memories, over the course of a few minutes, when both of us are half-starved. It should be impossible, unless ...” She stopped with downcast eyes.
“Unless?” I prompted.
“Unless you knew blood magic in your previous life and the skewer took you only incompletely,” she replied.
“No, I think it’s the game thing,” I said. I stuck out my finger and lit it up again. It was much easier the second time and took no more effort on my part than snapping. The mana bar wasn’t moving at all, and didn’t seem to display any numbers for me. “What’s the limiting factor on blood magic?” I asked.
“Personal skill,” said Amaryllis.
I frowned at that. I was pretty sure that the game wouldn’t be showing me a mana bar that represented personal skill. I spread the flame across my fingertips, then covered my entire hand in it until it was blazing like a torch. “So I can keep doing this indefinitely?” I asked. “Does this do anything other than provide light?”
Skill increased: Blood magic lvl 1!
Amaryllis’ mouth was agape at my display, which I have to admit felt quite good. “The light it produces is a reflection of the heat you’re invoking,” she said. “It doesn’t have much utility, though you can go around without carrying a lighter. I swear the reason smoking was even remotely popular at the athenaeum was that it allowed people to show off their proficiency.”
I nodded at that, then let the warmth leave my hand and the fire wink out.
“So what you’re saying is that we could have had a fire last night?” I asked.
“A fire clearly visible from miles in every direction, yes,” said Amaryllis.
“Ah,” I replied. “Point taken. Wait a minute, I need to see what the spell looks like in my head.”
I closed my eyes for three seconds and called up the character sheet, then navigates to the page where “Spells Known” were listed. The page had changed somewhat since last time I had seen it; there was now a heading for Blood Magic and below that, Aarde’s Touch.
Aarde’s Touch: Channels the warmth of your blood to create a small fire at your fingertips, which does not burn you. Objects set on fire or heated may still harm you. Saps heat from your body and may leave you feeling chilly if used too long. Consumes 0 drops of blood.
“Huh,” I said, opening my eyes. “This spell … doesn’t make a lot of sense. Flames are a result of oxidation, aren’t they? I mean, that hasn’t changed in this world?”
“You would have to visit the Athenaeum of Quills and Blood if you want to know more,” said Amaryllis, and while that was a pitch-perfect NPC line, no quest popped up for me. “I had a knack for it, but I’m a novice … though if you were just wondering whether flames are caused by oxidation, then yes, they normally are.”
“By my count we’re not yet through the half hour,” I said, lighting my hand and then letting it extinguish as my concentration lapsed. “And you said that you knew three spells.”
Amaryllis nodded. “Fine then, something more advanced in the realm of blood magic,” she said. “Feel your blood coursing through your veins, then feel your pulse, feel the movement of it within your veins.” She made a fist with her slender fingers, which somehow didn’t seem threatening at all even though everything I knew about her indicated that she was fully capable of kicking my ass. “Now, draw back, and with the next pump of your heart, as you feel the blood flow down your arm --” Her fist blurred through the air and made a sound like the swing of a baseball bat through the air. “Draw on the force of your heart. If you manage it, tell me what information you learn.”
I made a fist and concentrated on my blood. I was fairly sure that I had never tried to focus on the pulsing of my blood in my veins before, and if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to actually tell when the blood was moving, especially since it was necessarily moving in both directions. But here, on Aerb, I could feel it, almost keenly when I was paying attention. I reared back, tried to set my tempo to the beat of my heart, then --
Skill increased: Blood Magic lvl 2!
Spell discovered: Crimson Fist!
It seemed like an unbelievable amount of power to be put into a fist, and I went off-balance, stumbling slightly before regaining my composure.
“It’s called Crimson Fist,” I said.
Amaryllis nodded. She didn’t look happy. “And you picked it up on your very first attempt, having been introduced to the concept of blood magic only half an hour prior,” she said. “That’s troubling. I’m more convinced than ever that it’s imperative we get you out of here, somewhere you can be safely … diagnosed.”
That long pause? That was troubling. I put that on the back burner and closed my eyes to look at the spell.
Crimson Fist: Channels the force of your blood to gain kinetic energy in the form of a punch. Your fist is in no way protected by this spell. Drawing on this spell too often may leave you feeling sluggish. Consumes 3 drops of blood.
I opened my eyes and looked at the mana bar in the lower right of my vision. As I did, it gained a label, “Blood” and numbers appeared on it, “75K/75K”. I tried to do some quick math on that, but numbers had never really been my strong suit. The body had 10 pints of blood or so, I knew that from research I’d done before we played a one-shot of Vampire: The Masquerade. Were there 7,500 drops in a pint? That sounded plausible. At any rate, the bar hadn’t moved, and there weren’t enough significant digits to see the numbers change.
“Is it possible that you’re not right about limits?” I asked. “The description shows a cost in terms of blood.”
Amaryllis frowned. “So from your perspective, you’re simply being told things by this … game layer, you called it?”
“Yes,” I replied. “It told me your name before --” Poul, who you killed. “Before it was revealed to me.”
“There is some cost in blood, yes,” said Amaryllis. “But it’s usually considered so marginal that it’s not worth thinking about. There are aspects of discomfort as well, but they’re survivable.” She hesitated. “To wield a blood sword does require the blood to be drawn from the body, but traditionally a blood magus would have the skill to return their vital essence to themselves with none lost. If the rules of progression are different for you, I have no idea what might happen. It might be dangerous.”
She turned to look at Silmar City on the horizon. “Our allotted time is up,” she said. “The only spell I know is the one for sleep, and it’s not only unattached to a school, but there’s no way for me to safely demonstrate it, or you to safely practice it, at least as we are now. More to the point, it won’t help us when we get there.”
I was itching to unlock another magic skill so that I could start leveling it, but I knew part of that was just a desire to feel ready for whatever was ahead of us. We’d had little luck in foraging, only enough so that I hadn’t hit another level of hunger. But this was it, here and now; we were going into Silmar.
I’d expected Silmar City to resemble Wichita or Omaha, differing mostly in a few small details, which had been the general theme I had seen thus far. Instead, there were no less than six thirty-story tall castles in place of skyscrapers and a twenty-foot tall stone wall forming a loose circle around the city. There were nothing like suburbs outside the city walls and very few buildings in general, save for a tiered parking garage some distance from the gate and what looked like an administrative building near that.
“Shit,” said Amaryllis as she slowed the soulcycle to a crawl. “The gate isn’t open.”
“Is that … unexpected?” I asked. The gate in front of us was made of metal and glowed with sigils similar to the ones that I had seen on the grain elevators in Comfort.
“Not entirely,” said Amaryllis. “Most cities close their gates at night. But we’re going to have to find a different way in. And … hells, if all the gates are closed, then the undead haven’t had an opportunity to fully spill out into the fields around us. That explains our easy approach, I suppose, but it means that there are millions of them in there.”
“And if they group together, they form up,” I said slowly. “We … don’t actually have a reliable method of killing the big ones. Or that sleek one that almost caught up to us. And they seem to get smarter when they’re bigger, at least capable of rudimentary tactics. And if they come in bigger sizes than what I’ve seen, and those bigger ones have human-level intellect …” I trailed off. Well, we might be fucked.
“We’ll figure it out,” she said. She turned around in her seat to look at me. Our faces seemed startlingly close. I could see flecks of silver in her icy blue eyes. “This is your last chance out,” she said. “I can give you the soulcycle and you can leave. We’re further from the Host’s outposts now, by a few days at least, but I won’t obligate you to risk your life to save mine.”
“I have your back,” I said.
Loyalty increased: Amaryllis lvl 3!
That gave me a warm glow, and I felt myself blushing again. She thankfully turned away from me before she could see it and looked at the door, which was as wide as a four-lane highway.
“The sigils there prevent most forms of force,” she said. “That’s mostly irrelevant to us, because we don’t have force anyway. The void guns could do it, eventually, but if that door is a foot thick … we’d be looking at the better part of a day to punch out a hole large enough for us to just barely slip through, and I’m not so confident in these weapons that I wouldn’t expect a malfunction before we were finished.”
“So we go around,” I said.
Quest Progress: Out of the Frying Pan - The main gates into Silmar City are blocked and you lack the capability to breach them. Find a secret entrance in order to get inside.
“Does Silmar City have any secret entrances?” I asked after I finished reading the text.
“If it does, they’re not known to me,” said Amaryllis. She momentarily tightened her grip on the soulcycles handles. “Your power is telling you something?”
“It mentioned secret entrances to me,” I replied. “I was hoping that it would jog your memory.”
Amaryllis shook her head. “This place was known to me mostly because of the facility here,” she said. “I never visited it back before its fall, and obviously not since.”
“Do you know what the walls are for?” I asked.
She gave me a quizzical look. “They’re primarily for defense,” she said. “What other purpose would the wall serve?”
“Defense against what?” I asked. “If it were defense against the undead then they would leave a door that the undead couldn’t get through, right?” Mustn’t say the z-word. “Obviously they weren’t preparing to defend against the undead, but they were preparing to defend against something , otherwise why would they spend so much time, money, and wasted development on these walls?”
(I wasn’t entirely sure it was true to say that they had to have walls for a reason. In a game, even one that I was responsible for, there were setting details that just didn’t make sense. I hadn’t yet definitively found those in Aerb, just things that I lacked an explanation for, if you get the difference. I wasn’t one to condemn a setting because there was no immediately apparent answer, only if there was no possible answer that didn’t require jumping through a thousand hoops.)
“The defense is general,” said Amaryllis. “A wall of this nature isn’t difficult to build and maintain for a corps of steel mages, not in the post-Bessemer era, and they can move it virtually at will in order to allow for expansion. Besides, it’s useful to have a city with clearly defined ingress and egress points, not just for taxation of goods, but to control the movement of population.”
“That sounds suspiciously like a non-defensive use of a wall,” I said. “If the wall is there to prevent people from avoiding taxes, then I would expect smugglers to have their own methods in and out of the city.”
“And how would we find them?” asked Amaryllis.
“That … is a good question,” I said. “Not here, certainly, not so close to where the equivalent to a border guard is, but if we circled around we might be able to find something. Not a tunnel, necessarily, but -”
“It would have to be something that hypothetical smugglers were hiding from the city,” said Amaryllis. “That means that it would be hidden from us as well. And getting over the walls would be simple, for a smuggler, doable with only a long ladder.”
I felt certain that the game wasn’t lying to me though, since it hadn’t done that thus far. If we assumed that smugglers' routes were going to be too difficult for us to reasonably find, then what could secret entrances mean? Amaryllis must have been doing her own thinking, because she was mostly silent. That suited me fine; I needed do less thinking aloud.
Cities were living, breathing things. They generally took in food and raw materials and spat out waste and finished goods. Unfortunately, the existence of teleportation magic complicated all that. Amaryllis had said that teleportation was lethal without a key, but there were a whole host of things people wanted to move which were already dead. The road into Silmar City had seemed somewhat small for its size, but that made sense if you assumed that bulk transport was almost completely removed from the equation. I hadn’t yet seen train tracks, and semi trucks were almost non-existent.
“What doesn’t get teleported?” I asked.
“Hrm?” asked Amaryllis.
“You use teleportation for moving goods around countries, right?” I asked. “What things don’t get teleported?”
“Water,” she said immediately. “It’s horrendously heavy in comparison to its value. Liquids in general are problematic, but water … that almost never gets shipped. It’s easier to just draw from a river instead.”
“Is there a river near here?” I asked.
“The Sarkan,” said Amaryllis. “It flows past Silmar City, on the other side from us. The walls actually touch the riverbanks there, I believe, with a bridge over it. What are you thinking?”
“That water has to be brought into the city somehow,” I said. “Presumably wastewater has to leave in a similar way. Maybe they’ll have grates up, depending on what kind of defense parameters they had, but my guess is that it will be nothing like these gates and walls, especially not on the outflow.” We’re going to go into one of the most stereotypically videogame places of all time: the sewers.
“We don’t have many other options,” murmured Amaryllis. “We should at least check the other gates to make sure that we can’t slip in that way. Going through the piping though … I suppose won’t be that dangerous, since the undead wouldn’t move into a restricted space unless they had reason to.”
A half hour later we were looking at a set of outflow pipes sticking out just above the water of the Sarkan River.
Quest Progress: Out of the Frying Pan - The sewers of Silmar City are relatively unguarded. Make your way through them and out into the infested city.